Imagine life as one of eleven children. Now imagine it’s the 1920’s, a time when women were almost completely absent from the workplace, that your father has just died unexpectedly, and its now up to the family to somehow soldier through the tough times ahead. This is the scene set in the early chapters of Belles on Their Toes, the moving sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen.
(A side note: If you have never read Cheaper By the Dozen, and justify this with “I’ve seen the movie”, stop right now and go find a copy. The only common element is the title, everything else from names to the children’s ages was changed. The book is far funnier, and while the movie was very disrespectful to the idea of fatherhood and seemed to think that all children are brats, the book’s children idolize their larger-than-life father and, while mischievous and accident-prone, are never bratty.)
Although there were never twelve children alive at the same time (the second eldest died of typhoid at age 4), the Gilbreth family was still sizeable. (And it just goes to show that although we have a stereotype of “old fashioned” families being very large, almost everyone the family comes across is shocked at the idea of 11 children in one family.)The death of the family patriarch, then, was not only emotionally devastating, it was also a blow economically (though this is harder to really sympathize with when, as part of their economy plan they fire the cook but keep the handyman.) The family rallies with typical good cheer, however. They are soon making the best of a trying situation, with laugh-out-loud results.
The same light, breezy tone from the first book is carried through here, although there is an undertone of seriousness. There are enough children that while the older children have reached their teens and begun to head to college, there are still plenty of toddlers and younger siblings ready with a funny misunderstanding or amusing mishap. But the children are growing up, and the stories reflect that, from a hilarious account of the family triumphantly driving away the older sister’s unwanted suitor to teaching the youngest girl every nuance of college life so that she can be the hippest person in the high school. While the slang, and some of the situations, reflect the fact that the events take place nearly eighty years ago, this is still a fun read, and one that helps to show that some things stay the same.